Page One

Superintendent calls for small schools at Berkeley High School

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday June 14, 2002

Hoping to implement  

a plan by fall 2003 


In a dramatic reversal, Superintendent Michele Lawrence and the Board of Education last night endorsed a move to small schools at Berkeley High in the fall of 2003. 

Earlier this year, Lawrence and four of the five school board members told a group of small schools advocates that, while they were interested in dividing the high school into compact learning communities, reform would have to wait until the district could work itself out of a financial mess and fix basic systems at the high school. 

“I’m elated,” said Terry Doran, the one board member who pushed for a rapid move to small schools earlier this year. “This is something I’ve been working on for 10 years.” 

In other developments, the board voted four to one to ask Berkeley voters for a raise from $875 to $1,500 per month and parent activist Cynthia Papermaster declared for the November school board race. 

Small schools 

Lawrence recommended that BHS divide into a series of “houses” in the fall of 2003. She did not suggest any themes for the houses, but said the handful of existing small schools at Berkeley High, which focus on environmental justice, communications and the arts and computer science, might compose one or more units of their own. 

The superintendent recommended that any other houses begin without a theme, possibly developing one “organically” over time. However, small schools advocate Kalima Rose, speaking to the board, suggested that a theme can be a strong unifier, creating “buy-in” among teachers and students. 

Lawrence also recommended implementation, by fall 2003, of two common small schools elements – common planning time for the teachers in each house and “advisories.” Ten to 15 students typically participate in an advisory, meeting regularly with an adult who helps to guide them through their high school experiences. 

The superintendent urged quick implementation of these basic, “non-controversial” elements to get the ball rolling on reform and said the high school could make adjustments thereafter.  

Lawrence moved toward rapid implementation after a one-week trip to small schools in Boston and New York City in late-April and early-May. 

The superintendent, who made the journey with BHS co-principal Mary Ann Valles, three teachers, a student, and a pair of small schools advocates, promised to arrange the trip at a stormy school board meeting Dec.19.  

Lawrence made the pledge after the board rejected a small schools policy written by the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, a parent activist group, effectively killing public debate on the issue for months. 

The coalition had argued that a shift to compact, themed learning communities would create a greater sense of community at the large school and help address the “achievement gap” separating white and Asian-American students from African-Americans and Latinos. 

The delegation presented its findings from the April-May trip Wednesday night. The team said the small schools were calmer and cleaner than Berkeley High, fostered community, involved parents and delivered improved special education programs. 

“I was extremely pleased with what I experienced,” said activist Gina Wooley, who made the trip, arguing that the school visits validated the research the coalition presented earlier this year in support of small schools. 

School board members looked favorably on the new reform push. 

“I feel very receptive to the ideas you are putting forth and the recommendations the superintendent has made,” said board President Shirley Issel, who was a strong opponent of rapid reform earlier this year. 

Pay raise 

The board voted four to one, with Issel in opposition, to request a pay raise from the voters in November. The City Council will have to approve the measure before it gets on the ballot. 

Board member John Selawsky, who made the proposal, argued that a board member needs to spend at least 30 hours per week on district business and that monthly pay, which has not risen since 1988, should reflect that reality. He also said board members could defer some of the increase to pay for a staff member who would conduct research and serve as a liaison to the public. 

But Issel argued that the request might appear unseemly given that the district faces a multi-million dollar deficit, even though school board salaries actually come out of city coffers. 

“We’re in a budget-cutting mode,” she said. “We’ve laid off employees. The impact on people’s lives – it’s devastating when people lose their jobs.” 

Proponents on the board acknowledged Issel’s argument, but said the matter should be left up to the voters. 

School board candidate 

Papermaster officially declared her candidacy for the November school board race late Wednesday night. She told the Planet she will call for greater fiscal responsibility on the board and a boost in teacher and parent participation in the district. 

Papermaster joins incumbents Issel and Doran and a field of four other declared candidates in a race for three slots on the board.  


Contact reporter at